Book Review: Ghost Hunters William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death by Deborah Blum

I read this book in the summer of 2007 primarily from the condo or the beach in Ocean City Maryland. Almost anything I do in Ocean City takes on an immediate connotation of pleasure since the beach is my favorite place in the world to be but if I had read this book in any season or any place, I would have loved it. It deals directly with the primary theme of this blog – the research and study of the paranormal in the Victorian age.

ghost hunters

In the opening chapter author Deborah Blum relates the story of Nellie Titus. In the story a neighborhood girl goes missing. Search parties can find no trace but Nellie, by dreams and intuition is able to identify the exact location where the girl’s body was later found under water.

William James investigates the case and is quoted by Blum as saying, “My own view of the Titus case…is that it is a decidedly solid documentation in favor of the admission of a supernormal faculty of seership.”

The book really champions the career of William James which is another reason I loved the book. William James is a personal hero of mine. He was the leading psychologist of his day, founder of the American Psychological Association, and Harvard professor. He put his reputation on the line as so many “ghost hunters” are sadly forced to do then and now.

Unlike many “popular” as opposed to scholarly histories Deborah does a fine job of documenting her source material in the back of the book in a section titled “Notes and Sources.” Some popular histories provide no information on source material at all. Deborah on the other hand carefully explains in narrative form exactly where she found the material she uses for the book.

Another exciting subject that Deborah deals extensively with is the concept called “death sense.” Death sense is arguable the most common and well documented of all “ghost” phenomena. Death sense experiences range from the “sense” that a loved one has crossed over to the appearance of the person including sight, touch, voice, etc. Ask around and you will find people you know who have a death sense story to share. Most people will say that the deceased appeared to them at the moment of or shortly after their passing.

In her acknowledgements at the end of her book, Ms. Blum admits to being “a science writer, still grounded in reality.” But she says that, as a result of her research, she is “less smug than I was when I started, less positive of my rightness.” The work of William James and the brilliant ghost hunters of the nineteenth century caused her to “reevaluate my assumptions.” She said, “There were days when I could feel the hinges of my brain, almost literally, creaking apart to make room for new ideas.”

That is really what I am trying to accomplish with this blog – encouraging people to make room for new ideas. I may be right that our spirits live on after death or I may be wrong but either way I think it is healthy to keep an open mind and resist dogmatism in any form.

Much love,
David

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